75 years of independence, 75 iconic moments from Indian sports: No 40 - 1987: India’s dream Davis Cup run ends in final whitewash

India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes.

In its third and final appearance in the Davis Cup final, the Indian team failed to put a fitting end to a dream run as it fell to the might of Sweden in Gothenberg.

In its third and final appearance in the Davis Cup final, the Indian team failed to put a fitting end to a dream run as it fell to the might of Sweden in Gothenberg. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes.

India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes. Sportstar will present one iconic sporting achievement each day, leading up to August 15, 2022.

December 18-20, 1987: Swedes whitewash India in Davis Cup final

By any reckoning, 1987 was an extraordinary year in world tennis. Not the least from the Indian point of view.

It may not escape too many tennis fans’ attention that same time last year we were celebrating India’s success in holding on to its place in the World Group of Davis Cup. At that time, even those particularly given to fantasising would not have foreseen India’s fairytale-run in Davis Cup last season.

 “We have no business to be playing in the World Group final, wouldn’t you say?” Vijay Amritraj said with a huge smile and a sweeping theatrical gesture after Ramesh Krishnan beat Wally Masur in the semi-final to clinch a place for India in the final. If you had asked a computer to pick the probable finalists of ‘87 at the time the draw was made, 20th century’s presiding deity would have certainly ignored India. As Vijay said, given the rankings of the two Indian singles players, a realistic ambition would have been for India to try and keep its World Group place.

But ‘87 was a year in which the real seemed unreal, fact bordered on fiction and the Indian stars, Vijay and Ramesh turned dream merchants discarding their assigned roles as journeymen pros.

A hiding to nothing

Normally, this time of the year, the laid back Nordic coastal city of Gothenburg, a rather curious compromise between Victorian England and the 80s America, is decked up in whites. Snow is as punctual as Christmas and New Year in this part of the world, a region a little south of the Arctic circle and among the coldest areas of the world. But this year, in mid December, the weather itself was only a couple of degrees below zero most of the time and therefore it was considered ‘warm’.

But the Swedish tennis players compensated for the absence of snow. At the Scandinavium indoor stadium, in the Davis Cup final, the Swedes came up with a whitewash, which, given the right surface and the home advantage, has become a matter of habit with them.

To be sure, the Indians are used to neither. A Davis Cup whitewash has been as alien to them as snow in the last few years, at least ever since the world group format was introduced. Then again, perhaps that India won at least a single rubber in each one of its Davis Cup matches in the 80s is a greater surprise than the fact that it did not on the slow, red clay court here.

From the time Sweden and India made the final of this year’s competition, it has been known to everyone who knows his tennis that the odds on a Swedish sweep were rather unattractive. The last time out, back in 1985, the teams had met in Bangalore and it was now Sweden’s turn to host India. That was clear enough but what had come as a bit of a surprise was that Sweden gave India equal status as the United States. In 1984, for the final match, the Swedes laid out, for the first time, a specially made clay court here to counter the genius of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Nobody could have accused them for over-reacting then.

But to think of something like that to beat a team that has only one player in the top 200? Why not just play indoors at Stockholm on a carpet? Why take the trouble of preparing a slow, red clay court to play India? Well, the Swedes do believe in plugging all the holes, don’t they? They are indeed methodical people. They don’t believe in the joys of casualness.

And then, if it was hardly the greatest of matches, the Davis Cup final was essentially a tribute to the mastery the Swedes have over the science of tennis. This country has an enviable lineup, like Mats Wilander, Anders Jarryd, Stefan Edberg and Joakim Nystrom. The only man who was not an assembly line prototype, Stefan Edberg, could not play in the final as he injured his right ankle while practice just before the match.

Despite Edberg’s injury, the Swedish non-playing captain Hans Olsson, a soft spoken friendly man who was a teacher in a school in Malmo before taking up one of the most high profile jobs in the game today, chose not to exercise the option of making a change in the four member team for the final.

Just lucky to be in the world group,
everybody thought. That Vijay and
Ramesh took India to the Davis Cup
final had nothing to do with luck.
Sweat, guts and gumption, then.

Just lucky to be in the world group, everybody thought. That Vijay and Ramesh took India to the Davis Cup final had nothing to do with luck. Sweat, guts and gumption, then.

Good record He had no reason to, really. For both Anders Jarryd and Joakim Nystrom were in good form. Jarryd had a 12-3 record in Davis Cup singles although he had never played singles in a final before. And the 26-year-old university graduate did no harm to that good record as he added two important victories without the loss of a set. Jarryd kept his slate clean vis-a-vis playing the Indians: so far he has not lost a match either to Ramesh Krishnan or Vijay Amritaj.

But the more impressive victor in singles matches was the man who has lost once each to Vijay and Ramesh; Mats Wilander. There was no way that Vijay or Ramesh could have won even a set against Wilander, given that the two-time French Open winner played his usual, steady tennis. And Wilander certainly did just that in the final. Before the match, once it was known that Jarryd was the other singles player, the only hope for the Indians was to try and attack Jarryd and see what damage they can do. But, as it turned out.

Jarryd is not in Wilander’s class and he does not have Ramesh or Vijay’s gifts in terms of stroke-making. But he is a man who has taken bread and butter tennis to its very apotheosis. He served well and intelligently, he came in behind the right shots and he kept the ball in play all the time forcing the Indians to make the errors of judgment or placement.

In fact, in both his matches, and especially on the first day against Vijay, it was Jarryd who played the most attacking tennis that you saw in the competition. He was unafraid to follow the good deep shot to the net and he made some telling volleys too.

1987 Davis Cup final
Match 1
Mats Wilander beat Ramesh Krishnan (6-4, 6-1, 6-3)
Match 2
Anders Jarryd beat Vijay Amritraj (6-3, 6-3, 6-1)
Match 3
Joakim Nystrom/Mats Wilander beat Anand Amritraj/Vijay Amritraj (6-2, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2)
Match 4
Anders Jarryd beat Ramesh Krishnan (6-4, 6-3)
Match 5
Mats Wilander beat Vijay Amritraj (6-2, 6-0)

The tricks failed Just a few months ago, at Cincinnati in the United States, Vijay had played a close match against Jarryd, taking the bouncy Swede to the decider and leading 5-4. But Jarryd had then bounced back to win the match but that was on a faster surface and on the slow clay court Vijay had no hope of stretching the younger, fitter man.

Vijay tried about everything he could. He tried drop shots. But instead of dying instantly across the net, as they would on a grass court, the balls sat up like moving targets waiting to be hit. Perhaps a little more slice, or under-spin, on the drop shots would have helped. And when Vijay tried lobbing, Jarryd would move back to smash it for awinner.

The 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 victory for Jarryd came in an hour and 42 minutes and it was a good 12 minutes better in terms of time taken than Wilander’s clinical demolition of Ramesh Krishnan in the first match.

Everything that Wilander did was a lesson in clay-court tennis. Unhurried, patient as only he can be, he worked his way into the match from the baseline. He quietly went about the job of dismantling the Indian’s defences. He hit some great passes, especially the double-handed variety on the backhand, something that’s always been his patent, as much as it was Bjorn Borg’s. The Swede broke Ramesh in the very first game of the tie and then rode through comfortably to take the set. In the sixth game, Ramesh was a little unlucky to suffer two bad line calls but the match was nowhere as close as to warrant greater scrutiny of those two points.

Of course Ramesh knew that he did not have the technical or physical equipment to try and beat Wilander from the baseline and nobody can fault him for trying however unsuccessfully, to take to the net as often as he did. But the Indian hardly won any points from the net as Wilander raced through the second set. Ramesh played his best tennis in the third. He even broke Wilander’s serve once but even that was not enough and Wilander stormed back to find the crucial break to take the set and the match. The Swede won 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 in an hour and 54 minutes.

Some pride Wilander and Nystrom, friends since they were 10 or 11 and roommates on the circuit until very recently, did their job to perfection against Anand and Vijay Amritraj. Yet, this was the match in which India did better than it ever had in this final. It won a set actually. Another day, another time, the Amritraj brothers would have possibly beaten these Swedes but one man is now 35 and other is 34.

No matter that, the Amritrajs made sure they would not go down without the semblance of a fight. After winning the first set easily, the Swedes, especially Wilander, relaxed a little and both Vijay and Anand returned serves brilliantly and volleyed purposefully to break Wilander and Nystrom once a piece in the second set. Although Vijay himself lost serve once, the set was India’s. But the brothers could not sustain that kind of excellence and the Swedes swept the Indians off their feet in the third set and came back after a short break to complete the job without much fuss winning 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2.

End of the dream Thus ended the dream for Vijay and his men. “It was such a wonderful dream,” said the Indian captain. “The damn Swedes had to wake us up,” he said and grinned at Hans Olsson.

But Vijay said he now had a feeling of having achieved something in his Davis Cup career although India did not win the final. “I think if I were to retire today there would be only one regret: That I did not get to play in a Wimbledon final,” he said.

Indeed the thought of retirement has been on Vijay’s mind for some time now. And the man has a great sense of occasion. The big stage on which he found himself at Gothenburg, with the world’s attention on this city, was a huge temptation for the Indian captain to call it quits at the final. But for a variety of reasons Vijay postponed that decision.

On the third day, Jarryd beat Ramesh 6-4, 6-3 in a close match while Wilander outplayed a jaded Vijay Amritraj 6-2, 6-0 in the last match to make it 5-0 for Sweden. The last time a team had lost 5-0 in a Davis Cup final was back in 1979 when the United States outmatched Italy in San Francisco without the loss of a single set. India did a little better than Italy then. It won one set.

Later, after a stirring closing ceremony at which the Davis Cup was presented to Sweden for a fourth time in 13 years (they earlier won in 1975, 1984 and 1985) everybody, including the President of the International Tennis Federation Mr. Philippe Chatrier said that it was “one of the best matches I have seen not because of the closeness of the matches which of course they weren’t, but because of the wonderfully friendly spirit in which the tie was played.”

Gothenburg saw a set of bad losers in 1984 when Connors and McEnroe were here but now it had the privilege to see the nicest losers in the game.

Take your pick friend: You want a ranting McEnroe or a smiling Vijay. And be sure of this: Neither was good enough to carry Dwight Davis’ silver bowl out of this frozen country.

Perhaps the bowl will remain in the Swedish deep freeze for a long, long time to come.

  This article by late Nirmal Shekar was first published in The Sportstar issue dated January 2, 1988

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